Tim Kasten is the Deputy Director of UNEP's Division of Environmental Policy Implementation and Coordinator of the Freshwater and Terrestrial Ecosystems Branch of UNEP and currently serves as Vice-Chair of UN-Water. We asked him to reflect upon the achievements made to address water quality challenges over the past year and his thoughts on the emerging priorities for the near future.
There are several examples of solutions coming from both developing and developed countries that we can scale up and share experiences on. For example, in Nicaragua, where small-scale farmers have gotten together to share knowledge on best management practices for local resources and conditions and have implemented things like rainwater harvesting, agro-forestry and diversification of crops while reducing the impacts on the environment and maintained water quality for other purposes. By doing this they have been able to both increase crop yields while decreasing costs by reducing the amount of chemical fertilizer they have to use. We have a win-win-win situation because the farmers are spending less money, getting better yields, and there is less damage done to the environment as reduced fertilizer use means water quality is maintained for other uses.
There are also many opportunities for cleaner industry solutions. In the recent UNEP report, "Clearing the Waters" that was released on World Water Day, we highlighted an example of a tannery in Zimbabwe where they found new cleaner methods to remove hair from hides during leather making process. They have reduced costs and the reduced amount of pollutants coming out of the production and simultaneously profited from the effluent which is not toxic and is used as a new fertilizer source. These are some of the types of things we need to scale up and share experiences where they can be used.
There is also there is also a tremendous amount of learning to be done to improve water quality in industrialized nations. Industrial processes and cleaner technologies are areas, in particular where we need to move into at the large as well as at the small scale.
What do you see as the priority issues to improve and maintain water quality in the coming decade?
There are three main solutions that we have been promoting for the 2010 World Water Day, for the World Water Week in Stockholm and that we are trying to promote through a water quality brief of UN Water as well as other publications. The three solutions are Pollution Prevention; Wastewater Treatment; and Restoration.
In the first case of pollution prevention, we are looking at a couple of things to improve and promote processes that are less polluting and less harmful than some of the current ones that we are using now. So it is not only a substitution of inputs, in terms of using less harmful chemicals but it is modifying processes, both in agriculture and industry, that will minimize the contaminants being released as well as minimizing water use. At the same time we are promoting the use of less harmful chemicals. Going back to the case in Nicaragua for example, through crop diversification and use of natural fertilizers they were able to minimize the input of chemical fertilizers in those areas. Normally, pollution prevention is the best and least costly alternative , especially when you consider the cost of setting up new technologies [to remove pollution].
In the second instance, we would like to promote waste water treatment. It is still a major problem in many places even for domestic sewage, which is a source we have been addressing for many, many years. Yet about 80% of sewage in developing countries is still being released untreated into the environment. If we can put wastewater treatment in effect in developing countries we will not only improve water quality but we will improve human health and the host of benefits that come along with it. Wastewater treatment doesn't stop only with domestic wastewater treatment but it also includes industrial contaminants, where right now we have 300 to 400 tons of industrial waste consisting of heavy metals, solvents, sludge and other contaminants going into our water every year from industry, this is still an issue we need to address. The synergistic effects of some of these contaminants as well as their endocrine disrupting capacity still needs to be further researched and addressed.